Here’s a new feature that explores 4 and 5 star books published more than a year ago. Previously I wove them into the main page of my blog, but it always felt awkward; I had hoped to limit myself to thumbnail descriptions for this feature, but that didn’t work. See what you think; feedback welcome.
The Opposite of Everyone, by Joshilyn Jackson*****
I’ve become a diehard Joshilyn Jackson fan, this title marking the fourth of her stories I’ve read, with two more ready and waiting. Jackson’s prose is marked by a quirky, endearing voice; feminist undertones; and a plot that always has at least one strong element that takes me entirely by surprise. Best of all, her protagonists are always women.
Here we have Paula, a successful balls-to-the-wall divorce attorney who’s also trying to repay her mother for a wrenching blow she struck in adolescence. Her private detective, Birdwine, is wildly in love with her, but she’s kept him at arm’s length because she doesn’t trust her own heart. Then one day a visitor turns up in her office; he says that he is her brother, Julian. She wants to prove he is a fraud, but she knows she can’t; she wants to write him a check for whatever so he’ll leave, but what he’s looking for is family. The dance that takes place between Paula, Birdwine, and Julian is powerful , resonant, and at times fall-down-laughing funny.
Jackson never fails to crack me up with humor in unexpected places, and her characters are always deeply developed no matter how far-fetched the plot appears to be (at first). By the end, I absolutely believe every character and every word. I read ten or twelve books each month, but hers are the ones I try to press upon other women in my life, not because I don’t want them anymore, but because I want to share the joy.
I purchased my used copy with a gift certificate from Powell’s City of Books, but if I had paid the jacket price, it would have been worth it.
Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? by Stephen Dobyns****
Conner is coming out of the shoe repair when he sees a motorcyclist run smack into the side of a truck that’s backing out of an alley. Kersplat. Worse yet—to his own thinking—his little blue Beamer is stuck behind another car that can’t get out until the cops leave and the street is normal again. This is only the beginning of a darkly funny novel that follows in the tradition of comic suspense writers like Donald Westlake and GM Ford. There’s plenty of gore at the outset, and so this isn’t your best choice for a meal time read, or for those with a low tolerance for such things, but for most it will be worth it.
Our story features two detectives, Manny and Vikstrom, who heartily despise one another, along with a team of hucksters that invent and collect on behalf of scam charities for tobacco addicted beagles and former prom queens that can’t move on. The laugh-out-loud funny tidbits come from malapropisms turned by one member of the scam team, a fellow that has who-knows-what odd mental glitch and pops out with hilarious misstatements. The most beautiful thing about the humor here is that the author has no inclination at all to explain his jokes or belabor them. He drops them in and if you get them, you get them; if you aren’t paying attention, they’re launched past you like Fat Bob’s head.
I am sorely tempted to give this story a five star rating, and as humor goes it deserves it. Reluctantly I recognize the lack of character development and refrain, but believe me, I will be watching for this writer in the future.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead*****
In the past, the stories involving slavery and the Underground Railroad tended to be much the same: brave slaves sneak away with a guide, who leads them across swamps, mountains, and other hostile terrain. When they reach freedom, everybody cheers; the story ends.
Not so in Whitehead’s rendering, which adds clearly fictional elements, foremost an actual railroad that runs underground—and yet in other respects is more realistic than what school children see. The fear that follows constantly; the hostility of Caucasians in the north that favor an end to slavery, but don’t want free Black folk living anywhere nearby; the endless pursuit by slave catchers that honors no boundaries—makes this story more believable and more visceral than anything else I’ve read.
I could probably have read this book free and in advance, but when I saw the premise—the actual railroad—I threw up my hands in frustration. All those years in the classroom, trying to get kids to understand that the UR was just a metaphor; no, there were usually no choo-choo trains involved whatsoever; and then this writer comes along and does this. Makes me glad to be retired, I thought, because after this comes out it’s going to be impossible to teach kids what really happened.
But this turned out to be a good surprise. And with writers like Whitehead and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who writes essays about slavery, it may become easier to reach African-American students that don’t want to think about this subject, the root of American racism. Highly recommended.
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr*****
Epic. I finish reading it and feel as though part of my life has ended. How can this not become a classic? I didn’t request a review copy when I still had the option because I was burned out on WWII fiction; yet I suspect anything Doerr puts his hand to will come to life, and so it is here. And this is something the Pulitzer does for readers. It waves a flag to tell us, this one! Read this one!
The IRA, by Tim Pat Coogan*****
I found myself living in Toledo, Ohio during the early 1980s. One of the things I read daily was “The Toledo Blade”, the only major newspaper in town. A furious debate was raging between readers of the paper and sometimes, the Blade’s editorial staff. It was about the Irish, and specifically Clan na Gael, an organization headquartered in Toledo that supported the reunification of Ireland, and that raised funds for humanitarian aid to the people of Northern Ireland.
The Blade’s editor suggested the CNG was sending more than bandages, medicine and food to Belfast. The Blade suggested that guns were going there too, an accusation hotly denied by the group’s spokesmen.
And since I seldom met a controversy that didn’t interest me, my voice was soon raised also, on the side of CNG. My husband and I had no money at all, but somehow we managed to buy a ton of their literature, and were spellbound during the hunger strikes. We went to hear Bernadette Devlin speak at University of Toledo, and I won a wheelbarrow full of whiskey in a Clan na Gael raffle. And while I only remained in the Midwest for a few more years, my interest in the Irish Struggle followed me home to the Pacific Northwest when I left.
I found this tome on the Irish Republican Army during one of my annual pilgrimages to Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon. The book is a meal, over 800 pages of dense, small print. Coogan was present during the years of the bombings and the hunger strikes, and his scholarly devotion has ferreted out an immense store of information on the things that occurred before he was born. His treatment of the organization is less sympathetic than I had imagined, but it’s enormously readable and full of memorable vignettes, some of them funny, some of them painful, and some a strange combination of the two.
If you think you want this book, you’re going to have to search for it. For those that aren’t ready to dive into all 800+ pages, there is a clearly labeled section on the period mentioned above, which is most likely the period readers want to know about. It’s also a fine addition to a home library. I’m certainly keeping my copy. For those fond of Google as the fount of all knowledge, it’s also worth noting that these events unspooled prior to the satellite era. I’m not saying you can’t find any information online, but it won’t be as useful—and probably not as accurate—as what’s in this book. Highly recommended to those seriously interested in the subject.